That Thing You Do
directed by Tom Hanks
(20th Century Fox, 1996)

"It's very important that you don't stink today," Tom Hanks tells the Oneders (pronounced wun-ders) as the band takes the stage at a state fair.

They don't. And their star begins to rise faster than any of them had ever imagined -- or can handle.

It's 1964, but you'd never know the nation was still in shock over the assassination of JFK, or that the innocence was about to end. Bands from Erie, Pa., could still launch big-label recording careers by winning local talent shows with tunes like "That Thing You Do." They still dressed alike, and the strongest drug they did was beer.

It was a special time for rock 'n' rollers. The British invasion had rejuvenated an ingrown industry choking on its own mawkish gruel. Groups like the Beatles, Stones, Hollies and Yardbirds were forever changing the way people listened to and responded to pop music.

But for every legendary band, there were dozens of one-hit wonders.

That Thing You Do recounts the legend of the one-hit wonders, or Oh-nee-ders, as they were too often introduced.

It's a rich vein of legend, and Tom Hanks mines it artfully, as writer, director and star. That Thing You Do is carefully crafted and expertly trimmed -- a wealth of material, none of it overplayed.

At the heart of Hanks' vision are his characters. From the first shot of Guy Patterson dancing his fingers down the washing machines in his father's appliance store to Faye Dolan's final confession -- that she hasn't been properly kissed since New Year's Eve 1961 -- Hanks' characters are hard not to love.

The squeaky clean products of a squeaky clean town and time, Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), Dolan (Liv Tyler) and the rest of the Oneders -- Jonathan Schaech, Steve Zahon and Ethan Emby as a bass player who never does get a name -- parlay their talent-show win into a gig at a local restaurant, where between songs they announce dinner orders.

There they're discovered by a talent scout who makes them an offer that seems too good to be true -- a chance to play rock 'n' roll shows in Steubenville, Ohio. A few months later, they're racing to L.A. as "That Thing You Do" races up the charts next to songs like "Not Fade Away."

And of course the Oneders don't fade away. They crash and burn. But not before they set the screen on fire with music and laughter.

That's because Hanks, who wrote or co-wrote several of the songs used in the film, delicately balances his film between action and dialogue, realism and absurdity, dreams and the hard facts of musical life. He's ever-present, even when he's off screen, in the naturalistic dialogue, in the detailed sets (don't miss the RCA Victor chairs in the appliance store) and in the low-key performances he derives from a massive cast.

That Thing You Do is a rare commodity -- the vision of one artist brought to the screen intact. For 108 minutes, Hanks rides a razor-thin plot to profundity on the streets of a town known more for dazzle than depth.

It's also the first film ever to make me laugh so hard I scared my cat.

Certainly, Hanks' film is not for all tastes. There are no guns, no spies, no terrorists, no murders, no sexy sirens wearing something less than a negligee. Nothing blows up, and no one gets disemboweled, though a few rock 'n' roll myths get skewered.

Still, it never stinks. Even when the Oneders do.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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